Everything You Need to Plan a Road Trip

Ready to hop in your car and experience all that America has to offer? Not so fast! Here’s what you need to do first to have the best vacation ever.

Taking a classic road trip often ranks high on a must-do travel list, but if you want a truly amazing experience, you need to do more than simply hop in your car and hit the gas. In addition to making sure you have all the necessary road trip essentials, you need to do some serious legwork and planning ahead of time to ensure you’re hitting all the top spots as well as staying and eating in the best places along the way. Not sure where to start? Not to worry—that’s what we’re here for! We’ll help steer you toward your next adventure with this comprehensive guide on how to plan a road trip.

Planning your road trip route

Of course, the first step in how to plan a road trip is to think about where you want to go and how long you want to be traveling. Your travel plans will be different if you’re taking a solo trip, bringing along a special plus one, or traveling with kids. And from there, you have a number of other things to consider. Do you want a weeklong trip or something longer (or shorter)? What would you and your traveling companions like to do? Maybe you’re into trips that explore different food regions or you’re seeking a bit of adventure. Or maybe you’re more focused on the destination, heading to the beach, the mountains, or a happening city scene, or want to travel at a specific time of year. Some routes will pose problems in inclement weather, while other road trips can be taken all year long.

Another point to factor in is lodging. Will you stay at a hotel, book an Airbnb stay, or rough it a bit at a campsite? If the latter sounds appealing to you, check out this list of the best campsites in every state. Whatever you decide, planning ahead is essential to make sure you actually have a place to rest your weary head after a long day of adventuring on the open road.

Making stops along the way

Caucasian mother and daughter eating noodles in car trunk on beachShestock/Getty ImagesGranted, any road trip will require stops for gas, a good stretch, and other basic necessities. But if you really know how to plan a road trip, you’ll be hitting all sorts of attractions along the way. Before we get to that, though, let’s discuss the practical stuff: Knowing where to fill up your tank is crucial. Costco offers amazingly cheap gas at certain store locations, so see if one is located on your route. If not, make sure there are open-for-business gas stations along the way, particularly on long stretches. This is definitely not something you should take for granted—especially since you might also need to combine this essential pit stop with an also-essential bathroom break. Speaking of which, this state has the cleanest gas station bathrooms in the country.

Along with refueling your car, you might want to buy a few snacks to refuel yourself. Just be mindful, though, that there are some things you really shouldn’t buy at gas stations. In fact, it’s a much better idea to plan ahead and pack your car with these 25 best road trip snacks. If you’re going inside to buy a few things anyway, pay for your gas there, too—paying at the pump can make you a target for identity theft.

And now for the fun! Stops along the way don’t always have to be serious—and, in fact, you can build them into your road trip route to have an even better experience. For example, a road trip to Mount Rushmore to see some famous presidential faces can also include side trips to Crazy Horse Memorial, Badlands National Park, Deadwood, Rapid City, and more. And especially if you’re taking a cross-country road trip, you can incorporate the strangest roadside attractions or the oldest tourist attractions in the states you travel through into your itinerary.

Utilizing the best road trip apps

Yep, there’s an app for that. For what? Pretty much everything! From GPS systems to smartphone apps, travel-related technology has really taken road trips to the next level. There a number of road trip apps you can download for free that will do everything from finding nearby attractions or last-minute lodging to keeping passengers happily occupied with music, movies, and puzzles. And while Google Maps can help you get from point A to point B, did you know that it also offers these super useful tricks? Trust us—you’re going to want to try them immediately.

Of course, safety is key, so even while you’re utilizing these apps, make sure to keep your eyes on the road. For another type of security, consider getting a VPN to keep your private information safe while on public Wi-Fi.

Choosing the right car for your road trip

Road in Acadia National Park MaineAllard1/Getty Images

A key component of any road trip is the right car—and that might not be your trusty everyday car. First, think about whether it can handle a long drive, or if you’re in the market for something new, you might want to pull the trigger on one of these 18 best road trip cars for 2020. Then bring your ride to a professional mechanic to give it a good once-over to see what repairs your car might need depending upon its current mileage.

Renting a car is another smart option, whether you don’t want to put the extra mileage on your car, you’re looking to use something more eco-friendly, or you want to tote a travel trailer behind it. Just be aware of the possible pitfalls before signing on the dotted line and driving away from the lot, including these 18 things your rental car company won’t tell you.

Whatever you choose, you should brush up on some DIY car maintenance, just in case. Know these car maintenance basics, and for peace of mind, always keep these 17 items in your car for potential emergencies.

Budgeting for your road trip

You can’t figure out exactly how to plan a road trip until you consider your budget. Of course, gas will be an expense if you don’t choose one of the new hybrid or electric cars, but lodging can also be pricey, especially if you plan to stay in one of these expensive U.S. cities to book a hotel. But no matter where you end up, use these pointers to book a hotel room at a much better rate and check out these travel secrets from hotel managers to get some amazing perks. Or if you’re thinking about renting a home or two while on the road, this schedule can help you figure out the best, most budget-friendly times to book a rental throughout the year.

In addition to bringing your own munchies for the car, learn some smart ways to save on food. For example, make sure you know the best restaurant deals for your money and these 15 ways to get free food from your favorite restaurants.

Finding the ideal road trip destination

Sports utility vehicle parked on shore of Swiftcurrent lake against Mt. GrinnellCavan Images/Getty Images

With so many amazing options just a drive away, it can be hard to narrow things down. So, where should you go? Peruse our roundups of the 50 best road trips in America, the East Coast vacations everyone should take at least once, and the best places to spot fall foliage around the country.

Here are a few more of our favorites:

And that’s just the beginning. So, what are you waiting for? Get started with these road trip planning tips, and get going!

For more on where to go and what to see around the country, check out our Ultimate American Road Trip Guide.

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Michele Herrmann
Michele Herrmann applies her love for art, travel, and food -- plus a willingness to trying something new -- toward creating editorial and promotional content that puts the reader right on the page. She regularly contributes features to TimeOut New York, amNY, Orbitz, and Trip.com. Past publications include Yahoo, BudgetTravel, and Shermans Travel. She also has completed projects for SLE Lupus Foundation, the New York Travel Festival, and Bigelow Tea.